Israeli PM Netanyahu says minister's call to erase West Bank village 'inappropriate'

Leader wants to 'tone down the rhetoric' after one of his colleagues called for the destruction of a Palestinian town

Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on Sunday.  EPA
Powered by automated translation

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday described as "inappropriate" remarks by a key Cabinet ally calling for a Palestinian village to be erased, seeking to quell international outrage.

In a Twitter thread, Mr Netanyahu thanked Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for "clarifying" his earlier comments that called for the destruction of the West Bank village of Hawara.

He also pushed back against censure of Mr Smotrich, accusing foreign powers of playing down Palestinian violence, such as the February 26 killing of two Israeli brothers in Hawara village that sparked a settler rampage there, and fended off mounting domestic and international criticism of his new government's sweeping right-wing agenda.

Mr Netanyahu also called for calm after a ninth week of mass protests across the country.

“While some forms of protest are legitimate, we see that many are taking the law into their own hands," he said at a cabinet meeting on Sunday. "They wish to cause the government to collapse and bring about a constitutional crisis. I call upon the opposition to join me in trying to take the tensions down a notch."

Hawara backlash

On Wednesday, Mr Smotrich drew widespread condemnation for saying "the village of Hawara needs to be wiped out. I think that the State of Israel needs to do that, not, God forbid, private individuals”.

The comments came after Israeli settlers rampaged through the town burning Palestinian homes and property, killing one and injuring dozens. The attack, which one leading Israeli general described as a "pogrom", followed the killing of two Israeli settlers.

After widespread backlash at home and abroad, Mr Smotrich said it was possible his comments were not the right choice of words. He added that they were ”a slip of the tongue in a torrent of emotion”.

The US State Department said the remarks were "repugnant" and faced calls to deny Mr Smotrich entry to the country for an imminent trip.

Israeli settlers rampage through Palestinian West Bank town

Israeli settlers rampage through Palestinian West Bank town

On Friday, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said it "affirms the kingdom’s complete rejection of these racist and irresponsible statements, which reflect the amount of violence and extremist [behaviour] practised by the occupying Israeli entity towards the brotherly Palestinian people”.

But in the string of tweets released on Sunday morning, Mr Netanyahu went on to criticise the Palestinian Authority (PA) for not condemning the killing of the two brothers that sparked the Hawara attack carried out by about 400 settlers.

"I am still waiting to hear a condemnation from the Palestinian Authority for the murder of the Yaniv brothers", he wrote.

"And Israel is waiting for the international community to insist that the PA condemn that attack. Not only has it not done so, it continues to turn a blind eye to the PA’s rampant incitement, to the disgusting spectacle of Palestinians handing out sweets to celebrate terror attacks against Jews and to the official PA pay-to-slay policy, in which the PA pays terrorists to murder Jews. The international community’s silence in the face of Palestinian support for terrorism must finally come to an end."

Mr Netanyahu's outburst comes as pressure mounts at home over his new government's radical right-wing agenda, with particular anger levelled at plans to alter the country's judicial system.

The government says the Supreme Court has too much power in the country's democracy, but opponents of the move say the measures would render the institution unable to effectively challenge laws passed by parliament.

Clashes as Israeli forces raid West Bank refugee camp

Clashes as Israeli forces raid West Bank refugee camp

On Saturday evening, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Israeli cities for the ninth straight week to oppose the plans.

Demonstrations were largely peaceful, but in Tel Aviv police released footage showing protesters breaking barriers and starting fires as they blocked roads. Police sprayed water cannon to disperse the crowds.

On Sunday, Israeli media reported that almost all reservists in an Israeli squadron of fighter jets said they would not show up for a training session in protest over the measures.

Last week, senior government figures ratcheted up the rhetoric against opponents of the legislation, seeking to portray increasing disorder among demonstrators as destabilising and unpatriotic.

Limor Livnat, a former education minister for Mr Netanyahu, jokingly greeted the rally in Tel Aviv on Saturday with "hello to all the anarchists, hello to all the terrorists, hello to all the patriots".

But National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who visited a police command centre, said: "I have no intention of apologising to anyone, certainly not to the anarchists who want to set the state of Tel Aviv on fire.”

Israel has also come under fire from a senior Palestinian aide on Saturday for not fulfilling a verbal promise to release tax revenue it is withholding from the PA.

“[Israel] promised at Aqaba that they would transfer all of the funds but as of now we haven’t got anything,” Hussein Al Sheikh told The Times of Israel.

Mr Al Sheikh said millions of dollars were being held contrary to Israeli promises to release them at a recent meeting in the Jordanian city of Aqaba to de-escalate tensions. Last month, the PA said Israel had cut $78 million from the monthly revenue.

Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told the newspaper in response to Mr Al Sheikh's accusation that the revenue was "not discussed at all" at the meeting, and that they were a matter for a "civil committee that was established at the [Aqaba] meeting”.

Israel collects tax revenue on the behalf of the PA. The monthly amount makes up a significant budget of the cash-strapped authority and its distribution is often a source of contention.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has placed the arrangement under heavy scrutiny, saying that funds can be sent by the PA to convicted terrorists and the families of attackers that were killed.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 5:38 AM